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Education

Court, Public Relations Battle Over Florida Private School Programs Heating Up

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The legal and public relations battle over Florida's private-school scholarship programs continues, with the statewide teacher's union revising its lawsuit and a school choice group producing a new television ad supporting the programs.

Wednesday, the Florida Education Association amended its complaint challenging a new school choice law. The new complaint adds South Florida parents after a judge ruled the parties named in the previously filed suit lacked standing to challenge the law.

The new plaintiffs are Miami-Dade and Lee County parents, and their attorneys argue their kids' education suffers because the tax credit scholarship program diverts money to private schools instead of public schools.

"With the result that the Miami-Dade County Public Schools lost approximately $75 million in funding, which was redirected from the public fisc to private schools," the complaint says.

The suit challenges a bill approved this year that creates a new voucher program for students with disabilities. But the bill also expands the state's existing private-school scholarship program funded with state tax credits for businesses that donate to the scholarship fund.

The FEA argues the bill deals with more than one subject, which violates the state constitution. The union and the Florida School Board Association have filed a second lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the tax credit scholarship program. Supporters of the program ran an ad during Wednesday's governor's debate.

The ad was produced by the D.C.-based Black Alliance for Educational Options. It features Jacksonville resident Denisha Merriweather, who attended a private school using the program.

Merriweather says most students receiving the scholarships are, like her, coming from a family with little money to choose something other than her neighborhood public school.

“Now the teachers union and school boards have filed a lawsuit to take away these scholarships from these children," Merriweather says in the ad. "That’s just wrong.”

The FEA and school board group say the scholarship program violates a constitutional requirement for a uniform system of schools.

They also say most of the scholarships go to religious private schools.

More than 68,000 students receive scholarships through the program. Businesses are given a dollar-for-dollar tax credit when they donate to the scholarship fund.